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U.S. creates process for exploited migrant workers to obtain protection from deportation

Washington — The Biden administration on Friday announced an expedited immigration process that will allow immigrants exploited in the workplace, or involved in labor investigations, to apply for protections from deportation and for work permits.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled a streamlined process for immigrants without legal status who are victims of, or witnesses to, labor exploitation, to apply for deferred action, a form of immigration relief that allows federal officials to shield certain individuals from deportation.

DHS officials said the policy will encourage exploited workers to denounce labor violations and participate in workplace investigations in ways they would otherwise be fearful of engaging in due to their lack of legal immigration status, and the threat of deportation.

In a statement Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the process would protect workplace conditions, the U.S. labor market and the "dignity of workers who power our economy." 

"Unscrupulous employers who prey on the vulnerability of noncitizen workers harm all workers and disadvantage businesses who play by the rules," Mayorkas added. "We will hold these predatory actors accountable by encouraging all workers to assert their rights, report violations they have suffered or observed, and cooperate in labor standards investigations."

The process announced Friday stems from a directive Mayorkas issued in October 2021 to govern work-related immigration law enforcement. Through that memo, Mayorkas ended mass immigration arrests at workplaces, saying officials should focus on going after exploitative employers, whom he noted often pay workers substandard wages, subject them to unsafe working conditions and facilitate human trafficking and child exploitation.

To be eligible for deferred action, immigrants will need to include in their applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) referral letters from federal, state or local agencies that enforce employment laws and investigate alleged labor violations.

If USCIS determines applicants qualify for deferred action, it will generally grant them deportation relief for two years, as well as an accompanying work permit, if one is requested. 

Advocates for immigrants and Democratic lawmakers applauded Friday's announcement, saying it will protect vulnerable workers. 

"Too often, employers threaten deportation or otherwise retaliate against immigrant workers who raise the alarm about illegal workplace conditions, which undermines working conditions and wages for all U.S. workers," Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu said in a statement.

DHS has a long history of granting deferred action to immigrants considered to have low priority deportation cases, arguing the policy is part of its inherent prosecutorial discretion as a law enforcement agency with finite resources.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — a population referred to as "DREAMers" — is arguably the most well-known deferred action policy currently in place.

While the Trump administration sought to end DACA and other deferred action policies, the Biden administration has expanded the policy to protect several groups from deportation, including victims of serious crimes and abandoned, neglected or abused immigrant youth who have pending applications with USCIS.

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